NASHUA, N.H. - Rick Santorum was more than halfway through his 20-minute pep talk at an outdoor rally here when the 2012 GOP presidential hopeful heard something for the first time - applause, or, more accurately, the muffled noise of a few dozen pairs of gloves thudding together on a bracing-cold January morning.
"You can keep your hands inside your big pockets to stay warm," the bemused former Pennsylvania senator told a crowd of roughly 100 people - half of them journalists and many of the rest undecided voters curious to see the candidate who shocked pundits by nearly winning last week's Iowa caucuses. And so it wasn't until Santorum finished that the crowd - which easily fit into the small area between the goal mouth and the penalty-kick stripe on the Rivier College soccer field - pounded its thick gloves one more time.
Yet again, one week has seemed like a geological era in the topsy-turvy world of the 2012 Republican race for the presidential nomination. The smallish crowd and its mostly tepid response - coupled with the seeming gaffe of scheduling an outdoor rally at 9 a.m. on a seasonably frigid morning - summed up how hard it's suddenly become for Santorum to build on his Iowa success. Yesterday, it certainly felt as if his political headwind from the American heartland had died here in the foothills of the White Mountains.
Indeed, daily tracking polls and other surveys seem to confirm that Santorum's Iowa bounce has already nearly stalled. The Suffolk University two-day tracking poll released yesterday showed the stalwart of social conservatism stuck at just 10 percent and falling back to fifth place. If Santorum finishes tonight behind his chief rival for conservative votes, Newt Gingrich, it could make his mission to emerge Jan. 21 in South Carolina as chief right-wing rival to moderate front-runner Mitt Romney all but impossible.
The tone of yesterday's outdoor rally seemed in part an acknowledgment by Santorum that he'd been too slow to pivot away from the social concerns, like opposing gay marriage, that had won over evangelical caucus-goers in Iowa, and toward the No. 1 issue here, the economy. He chose to devote his entire speech to his tax and pro-manufacturing policies - avoiding any mention of his signature issues of abortion and family values. Instead, he made a blatant pitch for working-class votes.
"Imagine, the president of the United States standing up and saying everybody should go to college in America," Santorum said of President Obama at one point. "What intellectual snobbery is that?! Not every person wants or needs to go to college or should have to go to college. Hard work, getting skills, getting training, whether it's at a trade school or whatever, is good work and important work." He then claimed that Obama instead wants to "redistribute wealth" to those who don't get into college.
But Santorum - whose blue-jean and navy-blue-windbreaker attire seemed to symbolize his casual approach to wooing New Hampshire voters - is trying to do in just three or four whirlwind days what took him an entire year to accomplish in Iowa, where he practically moved in. It didn't help when his first night in the Granite State was dominated by a lengthy argument with college students over gay marriage, or when he left the state for most of Sunday to bolster his support for his apparent last stand in South Carolina.
Most of the voters who did brave the elements on the Nashua soccer field came undecided, like Roy Bouchard, a retired worker from the defense-contractor Raytheon who lives in Nashua and said that he was trying to make up his mind between Santorum and Gingrich. "I like substance - a guy who really knows the history and has done it," he said, adding that Santorum "is well-rounded for his age - he looks young and untested, but on the other hand Obama was, too."
After the speech, Bouchard said that Santorum hadn't closed the deal for him. "He's a little verbose," he said. "I wish he had been a little concise in his remarks. I know you can't bring out everything in a 30-second sound bite, but . . . "
It seemed that few dyed-in-the wool Santorum supporters were in the crowd. One was Nancy Charron, a dollmaker from Nashua, who showed up with a ponytailed, lacy red doll she wanted to give to Santorum for his youngest daughter, Bella, 3, who has a serious genetic disorder. Charron said that moral values are critical for her.
"One of our cardinals said that abortion is called the primordial evil, the greatest evil in the world," she said. "If a person cannot support the life of a child that is helpless in the mother's womb, how can he support anything else that is morally right?" But Santorum's speech - while admirably long on substance such as specific tax-policy ideas - included few red-meat-applause lines for partisans like Charron.
It was a different story one town over in Hudson, N.H., where, a couple of hours later, Romney showed up at a metal-fabricating plant for a slickly produced rally - indoors, of course - with all the trimmings and stagecraft of giant American flags and an endless tape loop of crowd-pleasers like "Eye of the Tiger." A crowd larded with retirees and military veterans festooned in Romney gear waited more than an hour for a speech and a short Q-and-A that lasted just 20 minutes and was as light on specifics as New England's nonexistent snow.
That didn't matter to supporters like Tom Keene, a retired book editor who lives in Nashua and who praised Romney's business ties and his chances of defeating Obama in November. Keene said that he was sold by "seeing him today and hearing him emphasize his private-sector experience - the part of his life that is outside of politics . . . "
Romney stumbled down the homestretch yesterday, declaring, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," as his rivals intensified already fierce criticism.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has staked his candidacy on a strong showing in today's primary, and has shown signs of gaining ground in recent polls.
Adding insult to any injury, Texas Gov. Rick Perry posted a ringtone to his campaign website that consisted of Romney saying, "I like being able to fire people," over and over.
Still, Romney's big lead here - driven by his wide support from the GOP establishment and a huge edge in campaign cash, including so-called Super PACs funded by wealthy supporters - is a reminder of how hard it is for an underfunded upstart like Santorum to build on the success of his personal retail campaigning in Iowa. This week's news that rival Gingrich is getting a $5 million infusion from a Las Vegas casino magnate to fund anti-Romney ads made life even harder for Santorum, frantically trying to raise just $1 million from his small donors.
Santorum's closing words in Nashua could have described his bitter week in New Hampshire as much as yesterday's weather miscalculation. "We've been having such balmy weather in New Hampshire, I thought I'd just take a chance," he said. "But it's a little chilly today."
- The Associated Press